Tight leg

After losing its status as the world’s premier single-handed race to the upstart Vendee Globe, the former BOC has come storming back with a closely fought race that’s shaping up to be a cliffhanger right through to the finish next April. For the first time in the history of single-handed round-the-world racing, at least half the competitors have demonstrated winning potential.

Certainly the opening leg of the ’98-’99 event has been the tightest solo marathon contest ever. At the time of writing, five open 60s and three open 50s have completed leg 1 from Charleston, S.C., to Cape Town, South Africa. Both classes have produced dramatic seesaw battles with positions changing almost to the finish line.

In Class I, British sailor Mike Golding aboard Team Group 4one of the latest Finot-designed open 60ssurged into the overall lead with two days to go on the final approach to Cape Town. French superstar Isabelle Autissier in PRB had been clinging to a narrow lead over countryman Marc Thiercelin, despite a forestay tang failure that prevented her from setting her largest genoa. However, Golding’s course to the south of the leaders gave him enough leverage to take the lead when a progressive wind shift came through, and Autissier had to settle for second, although she was less than two hours behind. A dejected Marc Thiercelin finished a little over four hours behind Autissier after leading for most of the leg.

Despite atypical and confusing weather that resulted in slow going during the first half of the leg, the first three finishers all broke the previous leg 1 record established by Autissier in the ’94 race when she split with the fleet in a brilliant strategic move that paid off with a monster five-day lead. Given the much greater competitiveness of the current race, another breakaway of this magnitude looks most unlikely.

In a second wave of Class 1 finishes, another Brit, Josh Hall aboard Gartmore Investments Management was 4th, while Italian veteran Giovanni Soldini crossed the line 5th. These sailors too had each led the fleet at times during leg 1, and had displayed boat speed equal, if not superior, to any. Hall’s downfall was a premature move to the east in the South Atlantic while the others continued south to circle a developing high pressure system. Earlier, Soldini misjudged the erratic weather in the wake of Hurricane Nina and rapidly dropped several hundred miles behind the main competition. He subsequently demonstrated the spectacular speed potential of his yacht Fila by setting an unofficial 24-hour record for solo monohulls of 386.9 milesbut it wasn’t enough.

Although well behind after leg 1, both Hall and Soldini are likely candidates for the lead in the upcoming legs. The hard-driving Italian is a particular source of concern to his fellow competitors, who expect him let out all stops in an effort to make up time in the Southern Ocean.Another Finot design

In Class II, the top group is smallerthree boatsbut the competition almost equally fierce. The leg 1 winner was Jean-Pierre Mouligne aboard the Finot-designed Cray Valley, who completed the course almost two days faster than the previous Class II mark set by David Adams in ’94. Mouligne extended into a fairly comfortable lead during the later stages of the leg, but victory was no cakewalk for the French native, now a resident of Newport, R.I. Californian Brad Van Liew took over the front spot during the middle portions of the race aboard Balance Bar, an older model open 50 that had finished 4th in class during the ’94-’95 race. His Lyons-designed yacht with updates by Roger Martin has proven faster upwind than the numerically dominant Finot designs. Van Liew came on strongly when most of his competitors tacked to weather the eastern bulge of Brazil. Later, as the winds built and shifted westerly, Mouligne pulled ahead, but Van Liew clung tenaciously to second place until almost within sight of the finish.

It was then that British Class II competitor Mike Garside, who sails a new canting-keel boat, gained the upper hand. Plagued by problems with his swing-keel hydraulics, autopilots, and sails, he nevertheless managed to reel in Van Liew, largely thanks to the superior offwind speed of his powerful Finot design. The two match-raced into Cape Town, with Van Liew finishing less than an hour and a half behind. "I wasn’t sure I had him until I crossed the finish line," Garside said, even after easing into the lead, inshore and slightly ahead of Van Liew. "I was counting on a southeast breeze to come off the land, and it did. At that point I was able to skid up toward the finish line."

Afterward, Van Liew revealed that his rudder bearings had failed two weeks earlier, jamming the shaft and forcing him to steer "sailboard style" using sail trim adjustments. Assuming both Garside and Van Liew will rectify their equipment deficiencies during their 28-day stopover in Cape Town, both should be capable of giving J.P. Mouligne a tough fight run on leg 2.

All eight competitors who have so far finished the first leg have commented on the wringing emotional intensity created by this new style of close-fought marathon racing. Marc Thiercelin, the only Around Alone competitor to officially complete a Vendee race, commented that "Nothing in the Vendee Globe has been as hard as the first leg of this race."

Again demonstrating just how much more competitive the Around Alone has gotten since last time out, the time recorded by American Steve Pettengill in finishing second overall on leg 1 in ’94 would have placed him behind this year’s Class 2 winner and in 7th overall. Admittedly, Pettengill’s boat wasn’t state of the art even then, and, naturally, conditions are never the same from one race to the next. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the performance standards for both open monohull classes have jumped dramatically during the intervening four years.A race on the rebound

In the wake the last BOC, the future of this famous adventure racerun every four years since 1982-’83seemed far from assured. British Oxygen had decided to withdraw its sponsorship, and the "purer challenge" of the non-stop Vendee was grabbing the limelight as the new ultimate in solo racing challenges. Today, however, it’s increasingly evident that the two-class, three-stop format of the senior race has unique and worthwhile advantages. For one thing, the BOC has historically been a true Pro-Am event, offering realistic opportunities for unsponsored amateurs, particularly in the 40- to 50-foot Class II. In contrast, the Vendee is 60-foot Class I onlya 10-foot difference that translates into a 60% to 100% increase in campaign costs. The current Around Alone start saw seven racers in Class I (including two Corinthian skippers), and nine in Class II. None of the Class II skippers has anything approaching full corporate sponsorship, and their presence makes the race a much more colorful, engaging spectacle than would otherwise be the case.

The fact that Around Alone has finishes and re-starts in Cape Town, Auckland, and Punta del Este means that a serious breakdown can be repaired ashore without putting a competitor out of contention for the entire race. Clearly, the early disqualification of two out of the three favorites during the early stages of the last Vendee presented a serious public-relations problem for race organizers and sponsors alike. After making essential repairs in Cape Town, both Yves Parlier and Isabelle Autissier raced on as "unofficial entries" and eventually crossed the finish line with full fanfare. Rather to the embarrassment of the skippers involved, the media attention devoted to these unofficial finishes overshadowed the receptions awarded several of the actual prize winners.

Another benefit of the multi-leg format is the much-reduced likelihood that one competitor will break away from the pack in the early stages of the race and vault into a huge, essentially insurmountable lead. For race managers, sponsors, and of course the "viewing public," this is about the worst possible scenario. The best would be a race in which overall winners are not determined until the very end. During the 1996-’97 Vendee, Christophe Auguin had victory pretty much wrapped up before even reaching the halfway point, by and large needing only to nurse his boat safely around the rest of the way. There was plenty of drama in the Vendee, but it involved capsizes, miraculous rescues, and death in the Southern Ocean.

There is, of course, a safety benefit to ensuring the fleet remains closely bunched. The portion of the Southern Ocean west of Cape Horn where Gerry Rouf disappeared during the last Vendee lies outside the search range of shore-based aircraft and is generally avoided by commercial shipping. More often than not, the best chance of rescue is a fellow competitorhopefully one who’s upwind and not too far away. The mediocre upwind performance of many contemporary open class boats means that a racer who falls far behind is in an especially vulnerable position. In the current Around Alone, the race committee has implemented a rather controversial rule aimed at weeding out anyone who falls too far off the pace. In either of the first two legs, a competitor who fails to finish at least seven days prior to the subsequent leg restart will be disqualified. For the third restart in Punta del Este, the rule is relaxed to require only a mandatory stopover of 48 hourspartly thanks to the less demanding conditions of the southern and central Atlantic, but also, perhaps, to avoid having to toss out an eager competitor on the homestretch.

Troubles back in the fleet

At the time of writing, seven sailors, all essentially unsponsored, are scattered across the south Atlantic en route to Cape Town. At the back of the pack is Russian skipper Fedor Konioukhov aboard Modern University for the Humanities, an elderly, ultra-narrow Open 60 that has raced around the world four times before. Besieged by numerous electronics failures, leaky keel bolts, and an inoperative water ballast system, he needs to reach Cape Town by November 28 to remain in the race. It could be touch and go. Others who might conceivably have trouble making the cutoff include Englishman Robin Davie, who lost his rudder midway through the leg; Minoru Saito of Japan, who is sailing one of the oldest boats on the course; and Australian Neil Hunter, who left Charleston late. Another Russian, Viktor Yazykov, has a simple but advanced new 40-footer with plenty of pace, and he should reach Cape Town with time to spare.

So far, the only starter to withdraw from Around Alone is Sebastian Reidl with the offbeat schooner Project Amazon. Electronics and rigging problems, plus a generator failure caused by sea water leaking into the diesel tank (located far below the waterline in the hollow, aluminum keel), persuaded the 59-year-old skipper to turn back to Puerto Rico once he concluded there wouldn’t be time enough in Cape Town to make adequate repairs before the leg 2 restart.

Now that the future of Around Alone seems assured, it’s likely that the performance gap between amateur entries and the fully sponsored professionals will continue to widen. To prevent a mixed fleet from spreading out excessively on the course, it might be desirable to start Class II a few days ahead of Class I or to somehow segregate the Corinthian entries from the pros in both classes for a separate, advance start. Besides the safety advantages, staggered starts are gaining popularity in crewed transocean racing because everyone finishes more or less together for the big wind-up party.

Equipment questions

Despite the mostly moderate conditions in leg 1, six of the first eight leg 1 finishers in Around Alone suffered significant sail damage. Marc Thiercelin’s much-patched mainsail literally blew apart as he crossed the finish line, and in Class II all three lead boats at times found themselves racing each other to get their split mainsails repaired and back in service. As in 1994-’95, a number of the better-funded skippers had selected lightweight Kevlar-reinforced mains for leg 1, intending to change to more robust Spectra sails before tackling the Southern Ocean. On the other hand, Thiercelin says that the main he blew out was his heavy-weather sail. It may well be that the skippers are simply pushing much harder than they have in the past.Solo skippers universally agree that today’s open class boats must be handled with great care and diligenceotherwise breakdowns are inevitable. The trick is figuring out how to go a little faster than the other guy without overloading anything vital. As the racing heats up further, expect a rash of gear failures on the upcoming Southern Ocean legs.

The closeness of the competition in this Around Alone will surely do more to advance the development of open class monohulls than any previous round-the-world event. Thanks to the four daily fixes that almost reveal the relative speeds of competitors racing in close quarters, a clearer picture should emerge of the relative merits of canting keels, water ballasting, and rotating vs. fixed rigs under actual racing conditions. In Class I, Group 4 and Fila are new-generation Finot designs, equipped with both rotating masts and canting keels. Marc Thiercelin’s Somewhere has a rotating rig combined with fixed keel and water ballast, while Josh Hall’s Gartmore is a less costly and even lighter boat with conventional mast, fixed keel and water ballast. Three of these four hulls (excepting Fila) came out of the same mold. Autissier’s PRB is a three-year-old boat with a canting keel and conventional three-spreader rig, which Finot believes to be about 3% slower than his latest designs.

So far, the erratic winds and assorted mishaps that afflicted Around Alone competitors during leg 1, have made it difficult to draw any but the most tentative conclusions about the speed potential of these boats. For example, Mike Golding’s winning burst of speed during the windy reaching conditions toward the end of the leg began when he discovered and dislodged a large nylon lifting strop that had snagged at the root of his keel. On the other hand, Mike Garside’s canting-keel Class II entry definitely suffered upwind relative to his water-ballasted competition, even before his equipment problems got serious.

The fleet leaves Cape Town on December 5 bound for Auckland. Readers who have not yet discovered the excellent Around Alone web site at www.aroundalone.com are encouraged to check it out.

By Ocean Navigator